Taxonomies: Not New, but Growing


What’s new in the field of taxonomies? I am asked this question following my attendance at the two-day Taxonomy Boot Camp conference (October 31 – November 1, Washington, DC), the only conference dedicated to information management taxonomies.  There is actually not a lot that is new in taxonomies, which is OK. Rather, taxonomies are new in increasingly more applications, organizations, and implementations; and that is more significant
We actually don’t want anything significantly new in taxonomy design, because taxonomies serve users with predictable, standard methods of navigation.  For example, the nontrained user should be able to understand a display of broader and narrower terms. Taxonomies have actually been around a lot longer than most people realize (and I don’t mean the Linnaean taxonomy of living organisms). Taxonomies (known as controlled vocabularies) have been around since the late 1800s for cataloging books and other library materials, such as Library of Congress Subject Headings, and indexing journal articles in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature published by the H.W. Wilson Company. For generations, library science students have been able to take courses in designing and using thesauri for indexing periodical literature.
Taxonomies now, however, are showing up in more and more places. These include public websites that contain numerous data records, such ecommerce sites that list all their products or databases of movies, music, recipes; a proliferation of new niche subscription database vendors; business to business databases; and most significantly in the growing content and document management repositories of any medium-to-large enterprise. Taxonomy consultants as myself are increasingly finding that taxonomy projects are not merely those of building new taxonomies from scratch, but also revising, improving, integrating, and repurposing existing taxonomies that have been created in the past 5-10 years.
It was good to have a presentation at Taxonomy Boot Camp, perhaps its first, that dealt with taxonomies for managing image files (known as digital asset management or DAM), rather than just text-based documents. Additional applications of taxonomies would be welcome topics at future TBC conferences.
The switch in scheduling Taxonomy Boot Camp with its co-located conferences KM World, Enterprise Search Summit, and SharePoint Symposium from following those three conferences to preceding them  seems to signify a shift in perspective, too. Taxonomies are no longer seen as just an add-on specialization, but rather a basic system that information professionals need to understand as a component of knowledge management, search and SharePoint implementations.
Finally, the spread in adoption of taxonomies is indicated by the fact that Taxonomy Boot Camp for the first time included both a basic and a “Beyond the Basics” track for one of its two days. More taxonomies are in place and there are more people experienced in taxonomies, that more advanced topics now can have their own audience. Despite compelling speakers in the consecutive basic track, the advanced sessions were well attended. I look forward to hearing more about what taxonomies can do at the next Taxonomy Boot Camp conference, October 16-17, 2012.